Vista glassblower Mike Shelbo appears on Netflix series ‘Blown Away’

Artist Mike Shelbo in the process of glassblowing
Artist Mike Shelbo boasts two arms filled with tattoos. But the one on his forearm that reads “Shhh…” is a nod to his last name and also to the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Old English-style font. “Just a little nod to my love for San Diego,” he says.
(marblemedia / David Leyes)

San Diegans might recognize a familiar face on season two of Netflix’s “Blown Away.”

Mike Shelbo, who lives with his family in Vista, where he grew up, is one of the featured artists on the gauntlet reality glass blowing show.

With a wide following on social media — Shelbo’s Instagram account (@mikeshelbo) boasts more than 82,000 followers — he’s known as a glass artist who can tackle a range of styles and techniques. In particular, he works with torches, microwave kilns, and mini furnace setups. From these techniques come glass pipes for smoking cannabis, the pieces for which Shelbo is best known, though he also works in mixed-media and sculpture.

“Blown Away” is considered to be family-friendly, so viewers should not expect Shelbo to be making bongs or dab rigs, as the glass apparatuses used to heat and vaporize cannabis concentrates are called. His inclusion in the show’s roster is a nod to his artistry and proficiency in glass blowing, regardless of how the piece ends up being used or displayed. However, it is notable that a glass artist known for making cannabis paraphernalia is being featured alongside other types of glass sculptors.

A glass piece by artist Mike Shelbo
(Alex Reyna)

Historically, there has been a divide in the glass art community between what some deem to be more serious glass art and pieces that are intended to be functional.

“The stigma of the glassblower and the stigma of the stoner — that’s kind of timeless,” Shelbo says. “When I started, cannabis was illegal everywhere and in many places, so was paraphernalia. Making pipes was very underground.”

In 2003, just after he completed studies at Palomar College, where Shelbo studied glassmaking from 1998 to 2001, a nationally-coordinated paraphernalia crackdown effort channeled through state and local law enforcement agencies called Operation Pipe Dreams was enacted. The eventual criminal case centered around actor Tommy Chong, of Cheech & Chong fame, and resulted in a variety of arrests and charges. Chong, himself, was charged with one count of “conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia.”

Times have changed and Cannabis-oriented glass artists are no longer being arrested (though there are still some who turn up their noses at the art form). Now, there’s a thriving collector’s market for high-end glass, something that Shelbo has been able to capitalize on and gain notoriety from.

Still, internet and brick-and-mortar sales can be tightly regulated, and sometimes the law does crack down on such makers and sellers.

“I guess I was part of that next emerging class of pipe-makers-slash-glass-blowers in the post-Operation Pipe Dreams world of getting out there, visiting head shops, selling our wares, going all over San Diego from Oceanside down to Ocean Beach on a mission to empty our gun cases filled with pipes. We had to do the hard grind that has nothing to do with Instagram or Facebook or anything that’s going on now,” Shelbo says.

He says everyone he knows who started in the mid to late 1990s has a “completely different view” of the pathway through pipemaking than anyone who has started in the last 5 to 10 years.

“I was an anomaly the whole time, though,” Shelbo says, because he always kept one foot in the fine art side of things while nurturing his pipemaking alongside it.

“I wanted to experience both because I loved everything about cannabis and glass pipes, but I also was finding my love for goblet-making, goblin-making,” he says, referring to a particularly popular recurring piece in his portfolio.

A glassblown goblin by Vista artist Mike Shelbo
(Alex Reyna)

Shelbo says that long before he ever arrived at community college for glass art, he was always interested in art and was always thinking of different mediums he could try, like bronze sculpting or painting.

“Then I found glass blowing,” Shelbo says. “And it ended up being a perfect match of having an art-based job and also be learning the thing I was doing at the same time. That was a big bonus and it pushed glass to the forefront.”

As for cannabis, Shelbo says his use started at age 15, “to self medicate for depression and recreationally for the love of the plant and the process of consuming it.” That included “rolling joints, packing bowls and studying the buds. It saved my life at the same time art did, and changed it for the better,” he says.

Fast forward to today, Shelbo is now gearing up for his first television streaming appearance on Netflix. Though he didn’t originally envision himself on “Blown Away.”

“Yeah, right, a glass blowing show,” Shelbo initially thought about the series.

He said he wasn’t sure it would be done properly, especially since he’s a big reality competition television fan. He thinks those types of shows are “volunteer social experiment” situations that basically end up being “free opportunities to study humans.” Because of that, he expected the first season to be similarly dramatic but was pleasantly surprised to see genuine artists, one of whom he counts as a personal friend, producing good work on the show. He decided then that he wanted to be involved in it.

So, he did what any other hard-working artist on social media would do in a similar scenario. He lobbied his followers to get him on the show for the second season. “I applied and had a nice video made for me by a friend,” Shelbo said.

After submission, he took to his Instagram account and continually re-posted the “Blown Away” posts for casting calls while asking his followers to lobby the network on his behalf.

It worked and eventually Shelbo was cast on the reality show.

Due to contractual obligations, Shelbo has to keep mum on what actually happened during his tenure on “Blown Away,” including pieces he made, where he ended up in the competition, and any drama he may have encountered along the way.

For that, fans will have to tune in to “Blown Away,” which begins airing its second season on Jan. 22.